The July 2 death of Elie Wiesel at age 87 occasioned an outpouring of well-deserved tributes to America’s most treasured Holocaust witness and chronicler. Although he survived a year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a teenager, he lost both parents and one of three sisters. Although he stayed silent for 10 years about his unspeakable experiences, thereafter he dedicated his life to making the world remember the wholesale slaughter of millions. His first and most famous memoir, “Night,” was published in English in 1960. He continued to produce books, lectures, articles and whatever else he could in a relentless push to ensure that we would never forget, raising the most discomfiting issues and questions in the process. For all this and much more he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His citation hailed him as a “messenger to mankind” who brought tidings of “peace, atonement and human dignity.”
But few elegies mentioned his crucial role in making sure that the world would remember the thousands of gay men who died as a direct result of Nazi persecution.
The very existence of these victims was all but ignored in the postwar era until the advent of Gay Liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s. Several historians documented how a thriving German gay community was brutally suppressed by the Nazis, especially after the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, and some accounts by gay survivors were published. But these reports were largely ignored or condemned as frauds by those outside the LGBT community.
Jimmy Carter named a Presidential Commission on the Holocaust in 1977. This Commission issued its final findings and recommendations in October 1979 without saying one word about the gay victims.
Fortunately, Elie Wiesel continued to chair what became the 55-member U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, established to implement the recommendations of the Commission. The Council focused on the Commission’s call for a Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington.
We in what was then known as the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA, now GLAA) decided to do everything in our power to get the story of the gay victims of Nazi persecution included in the new museum.
In early 1980, we sent a letter to the new executive director of the Holocaust Council, Monroe Freedman, who qualified as an old friend of our community, having worked with Frank Kameny and the Mattachine Society of Washington as a volunteer attorney. He told us in his response that the surest way to win our case was to produce well-grounded historical evidence that thoroughly detailed just what had happened.
Thanks to the good offices of Clint Hockenberry, a D.C. activist serving as (among many other things) the American liaison with what was then known as the International Gay Association (IGA, now ILGA), we received an English translation of a landmark study on this very subject conducted by Professor Ruediger Lautmann of the University of Bremen. His findings were based on exhaustive research into concentration camp records archived with the International Tracing Service.
We at GAA made copies of Dr. Lautmann’s translated manuscript for every member of the Holocaust Council and presented them to Freedman in May 1981.
Nearly two years later, in April 1983, the Washington Post published an extensive article on a series of actions announced by the Council. They reported that Council Chair Elie Wiesel had used his unimpeachable integrity and prestige to settle two long-standing disputes that had been dividing his colleagues.
The first argument he settled was whether the museum would focus solely on the slaughter of the European Jewish community, or would expand its scope to include remembrance of all victims of Nazi persecution. He ruled that all victims would be remembered — without equating the genocide against the Jews with the persecution of other targeted classes. In his own words: “No omission, absolutely not, but no equation.”
The other argument he settled was specifically whether to include the story of the gay men persecuted under the Nazi regime. He ruled that the historical record clearly justified their inclusion.
Since then, all our country’s official activities commemorating the Holocaust – in the Holocaust Museum itself, in the annual Day of Remembrance ceremonies in the Capitol Rotunda, in special exhibitions that tour throughout the nation, and so forth – have consistently integrated the story of the thousands of gay men arrested, imprisoned, brutalized and all too frequently murdered by the Nazis. The museum’s professional staff have been used to continue research into the historical record and to locate and interview gay survivors and witnesses.
Gregory King, who served as communications director for the Human Rights Campaign at the time, has reminded us that HRC presented Elie Wiesel with its Humanitarian of the Year Award in 1989. In accepting the award at HRC’s annual banquet, Wiesel remarked: “Those who hate you hate me. Bigots do not stop at classes, at races, or at lesbians and gays. Those who hate, hate everybody.”
In King’s words, “May his memory always be a blessing to those who fight to end intolerance, ignorance and injustice.”